Beaumont researchers discover key biomarkers for predicting autism in newborns

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published January 21, 2020

 A research team led by Dr. Ray Bahado-Singh — a geneticist and the chair of obstetrics and gynecology for Beaumont Health and the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine — has identified key biomarkers for predicting autism in newborns.

A research team led by Dr. Ray Bahado-Singh — a geneticist and the chair of obstetrics and gynecology for Beaumont Health and the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine — has identified key biomarkers for predicting autism in newborns.

Photo provided by Beaumont Health

METRO DETROIT — Scientists are one step closer to developing an autism screening for newborns.

A research team led by Dr. Ray Bahado-Singh — a geneticist and the chair of obstetrics and gynecology for Beaumont Health and the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine — used artificial intelligence to scan a map of the human genome, allowing them to identify key biomarkers for predicting autism in newborns.

Researchers from the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, Albion College and the University of Nebraska Medical Center all participated in the project, which compared DNA from 14 known cases of autism to 10 control cases. The results appeared in the journal, Brain Research.

“It appears that whatever the influences are that changed brain and development, these must get to the brain through the blood, so they also leave a mark on the genes of the blood,” Bahado-Singh said. “What we’re able to do is to look for these marks that were left in the genes of the blood that reflect what happened in the brain.”

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder — approximately 1 in 37 boys and 1 in 151 girls. Symptoms of autism include sensory processing difficulties, anxiety, irritability, sleep dysfunction, seizures and gastrointestinal disorders.  

Today, most children are screened for autism — via parental and physician questionnaires — between 18 and 24 months, per a American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. Yet most children are diagnosed after age 4, according to the CDC, though officials said autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as age 2.

The research team’s findings could eventually lead to an accessible, standardized newborn screening tool, which uses a heel prick just days after birth to test blood for the biomarkers associated with autism.

An earlier diagnosis leads to quicker intervention, which officials said can improve learning, communication and social skills, as well as underlying brain development.

“This is very early, but it is exciting in the prospect that … we were able to find markers this early, but perhaps even more importantly, the brain is inaccessible to us, with very few exceptions, so if you have a blood test that — on an ongoing basis — can assess the status and development of the brain, that would be something indeed. We think that this could be, maybe, a crude initial step to have a way of getting inside on an ongoing basis,” Bahado-Singh said.

Dr. Lori Warner, a psychologist and the director of the Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center, which treats children with autism at Beaumont Children’s Hospital, called the findings optimistic.

“We are always looking for new ways to make a difference in the lives of our patients,” Warner said in a statement. “Getting them into therapy early on is a proven way to make their path, and that of their families, easier and more meaningful.”

Dr. David Aughton, the chief of genetics for Beaumont Children’s Hospital, said he looks forward to larger follow-up studies.

“Although it has been thought for many years that the underlying cause of a significant proportion of autism is likely to be nongenetic in nature, this study takes a very pragmatic and important first step toward investigating the epigenome — the inheritable changes in gene expression — and identifying those underlying nongenetic influences,” he said. “The authors call for larger follow-up studies to validate their findings, and I eagerly look forward to learning the outcome of those validation studies.”

The next step in the process, according to Bahado-Singh, is to complete the same research on a larger number of cases.

“There are also several different categories of disorders that are lumped into autism spectrum disorder, so we would want to look at these different categories to see … whether the changes are present, and whether there are similar changes in the same genes or a different combination in the genes, to what extent these categories of autism diverge, and also, their similarities. That is where we are,” he said.